Sir Joshua Reynolds (16 July 1723 - 23 February 1792) was an influential 18th-century English painter, specialising in portraits and promoting the "Grand Style" in painting which depended on idealisation of the imperfect. He was one of the founders and first President of the Royal Academy. King George III appreciated his merits and knighted him in 1769.
Reynolds was born in Plympton, Devon, on 16 July 1723. As one of ten (maybe eleven) children, and the son of the village school-master, Reynolds was restricted to a formal education provided by his father. He exhibited a natural curiosity and, as a boy, came under the influence of Zachariah Mudge, whose Platonistic philosophy stayed with him all his life. Reynolds made extracts into his commonplace book from Theophrastus, Plutarch, Seneca, Marcus Antonius, Ovid, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Aphra Behn and passages on art theory by Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy, and Andre Felibien. The work that came to have the most influential impact on Reynolds was Jonathan Richardson's An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715). Reynolds annotated copy was lost for nearly 200 years when it appeared in a Cambridge bookshop, inscribed with the signature 'J. Reynolds Pictor'.
Showing an early interest in art, Reynolds was apprenticed in 1740 to the fashionable portrait painter Thomas Hudson, with whom he remained until 1743. In 1749 Reynolds became friend with Augustus Keppel, a naval officer, and they both sailed on the Centurion to the Mediterranean. Whilst on board, Reynolds wrote later, "I had the use of his cabin and his study of books, as if they had been my own". From 1749 to 1752, he spent over two years in Italy, where he studied the Old Masters and acquired a taste for the "Grand Style". Unfortunately, whilst in Rome, Reynolds suffered a severe cold which left him partially deaf and, as a result, he began to carry a small ear trumpet with which he is often pictured. From 1753 until the end of his life he lived in London, his talents gaining recognition soon after his arrival in France.
Reynolds worked long hours in his studio, rarely taking a holiday. He was both gregarious and keenly intellectual, with a great number of friends from London's intelligentsia, numbered amongst whom were Dr Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Giuseppe Baretti, Henry Thrale, David Garrick and fellow artist Angelica Kauffmann. Johnson said in 1778: "Reynolds is too much under fox and Burke at present. He is under the Fox star and the Irish constellation. He is always under some planet".
Because of his popularity as a portrait painter, Reynolds enjoyed constant interaction with the wealthy and famous men and women of the day, and it was he who first brought together the famous figures of "The" Club. By 1761 Reynolds could command a fee of 80 Guineas for a full-length portrait (Mr Fane), in 1764 he was paid 100 Guineas for a portrait of Lord Burghersh.
With his rival Thomas Gainsborough Reynolds was the dominant English portraitist of 'the Age of Johnson'. It is said that in his long life he painted as many as three thousand portraits. Although not principally known for his landscapes, Reynolds did paint in this genre. He had an excellent vantage from his house on Richmond Hill, and painted the view in about 1780.
In the Battle of Ushant with the French in 1778, Lord Keppel commanded the Channel Fleet and the outcome resulted in no clear winner, Keppel ordered to renew the attack and this was obeyed except by Sir Hugh Palliser, who commanded the rear, and the French escaped bombardment. A dispute between Keppel and Palliser arose and Palliser brought charges of misconduct and neglect of duty against Keppel and the Admiralty decided to court-martial him. On 11 February 1779 Keppel was acquitted of all charges and became a national hero. One of Keppel's lawyers commissioned Sir Nathaniel Dance to paint a portrait of Keppel but Keppel redirected it to Reynolds. Reynolds alluded to Keppel's trial in the painting by having him have his hand on his sword, reflecting the presiding officer's words at the court-martial: "In delivering to you your sword, I am to congratulate you on its being restored to you with so much honour".
On 10 August 1784 Allan Ramsay died and the office of Principal Painter in Ordinary to the King therefore became vacant. Gainsborough felt that he had a good chance of securing it but Reynolds felt that he deserved it and threatened to resign the presidency of the Royal Academy if he did not receive it. Reynolds noted in his pocket book: "Sept. 1, to attend at the Lord Chancellor's Office to be sworn in painter to the King". However this did not make Reynolds happy, as he wrote to Boswell: "If I had known what a shabby miserable place it is, I would not have asked for it, besides as things have turned out I think a certain person is not worth speaking to, nor speaking of", presumably meaning the King. Reynolds wrote to Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St Asaph, a few weeks later: "Your Lordship congratulation on my succeeding Mr. Ramsay I take very kindly but it is a most miserable office, it is reduced from two hundred to thirty-eight pounds per annum, the Kings Rat catcher I believe is a better place, and I am to be paid only a fourth part of what I have from other people, so that the Portraits of their Majesties are not likely to be better done now, than they used to be, I should be ruined if I was to paint them myself".
In 1788 Reynolds painted the portrait of Lord Heathfield, who became a national hero for his successful defence of Gibraltar during its Great Siege from 1779 to 1783 against he combined forces of France and Spain. Heathfield is depicted against a background of clouds and cannon smoke, wearing the uniform of the 15th Light Dragoons and clasping the key of the Rock, its chain wrapped twice around his right hand. John Constable said in the 1830s that it was "almost a history of the defence of Gibraltar". Desmond Shawe-Taylor has claimed that the portrait may have a religious meaning, Heathfield holding the key similar to St Peter (Jesus' "rock") possessing the keys to Heaven, Heathfield "the rock upon which Britannia builds her military interests".
In 1789 he lost the sight of his left eye, which finally forced him into retirement. In 1791 James Boswell dedicated his Life of Samuel Johnson to Reynolds. Reynolds agreed with Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and, writing in early 1791, expressed his belief that the ancien regime of France had fallen due to spending too much time tending "to the splendor of the foliage, to the neglect of the stirring the earth about the roots. They cultivated only those arts which could add splendor to the nation, to the neglect of those which supported it - They neglected Trade & substantial Manufacture...but does it follow that a total revolution is necessary that because we have given ourselves up too much to the ornaments of life, we will now have none at all". When attending a dinner at Holland House, Fox's niece Caroline was sat next to Reynolds and "burst out into glorification of the Revolution - and was grievously chilled and checked by her neighbour's cautious and unsympathetic tone".
Reynolds "filled the chair with a most convivial glee". He returned to town from Burke's house in Beaconsfield and Edmond Malone wrote that "we left his carriage at the Inn at Hayes, and walked five miles on the road, in a warm day, without his complaining of any fatigue". However later that month Reynolds suffered from a swelling over his left eye and had to be purged by a surgeon. In October he was too ill to take the President's chair and in November Fanny Burney recorded that "I had long languished to see that kindly zealous friend, but his ill health had intimidated me from making the attempt": "He had a bandage over one eye, and the other shaded with a green half-bonnet. He seemed serious even to sadness, though extremely kind. 'I am very glad,' he said, in a meek voice and dejected accent, 'to see you again, and I wish I could see you better! but I have only one ye now, and hardly that.' I was really quite touched".] On 5 November Reynolds, fearing he may not have an opportunity to write a will, wrote a memorandum intended to be his last will and testament, with Burke, Malone and Philip Metcalfe named as executors. On 10 November Reynolds wrote to Benjamin West to resign the Presidency but at a meeting of the General Assembly it was generally agreed that Reynolds should be re-elected, with Sir William Chambers and West to deputise for him. The doctors Richard Warren and Sir George Baker believed Reynolds illness to be psychological and they bled his neck "with a view of drawing the humour from his eyes" but the effect of this in the view of his niece was that it seemed "as if the principle of life were gone" from Reynolds. On New Year's Day 1792 Reynolds became "seized with sickness" and from that point onwards could not keep down food.
Reynolds died on 23 February 1792 in his house in Leicester Fields in London between eight and nine in the evening. Burke was present on the night Reynolds died and he was moved within hours to write a eulogy of Reynolds.
He was buried at St. Paul's Cathedral.